When it comes to human experiences, is ‘following the science’ always the right way to act?

For just over a year now, the world has been focused on ‘following the science’. And no doubt rightly so in many instances. Science is brilliant, in too many ways to list here. But… when it comes to human experience, its tools are often blunt, clunky or inadequate.

Sometimes, science lags behind human instinct or common sense. Sometimes, its microscopic focus loses sight of the macroscopic whole. Objective rationale overrides simple solutions seen by subjective understanding. Symptoms may be treated in isolation rather than as part of a highly intelligent organism. Other times, a phenomenon is too mind-boggling to be explained by logical process; love, death, black holes… That’s where art or religion, with their different toolset, have a go with varying degrees of success.

My recent TEDx talk – you can watch it here if you haven’t seen it yet – presents my experience of the transgenerational transmission of trauma or guilt. It’s an example of subjective experience gradually making its way to objective explanation. It is not a new idea. Way back, in Exodus Chapter 20, the bible talked of “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.” In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Launcelot says, “Yes, truly; for, look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” And over the past fifty years or so, symptoms of inherited trauma/guilt have been documented in descendents of a wide range of people exposed to traumatic events. However… because science doesn’t have the ability to prove it happens – not yet at least – some dismiss examples of such transmissions as being impossible, coincidental, imagined, nonsense.

But does that mean that it doesn’t happen? Is science right… or simply behind?

Take Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example. Traumatic incidents have always been part of the human experience. And no doubt people all over the world have displayed symptoms of PTSD long before it was given a name. Yet the term ‘trauma’ only started to be explored at the end of the nineteenth century when Freud and his fellow pioneers of neurology and psychology considered it a diagnosis worthy of specialised treatment. When thousands of men returned from First World War fronts with psychological symptoms and medical conditions that had never been seen before, let alone explained, the British came up with the diagnosis of “shell shock.” Those who suffered from it were entitled to treatment – often hypnosis – and a disability pension. The sheer numbers, however, led the British General Staff to forbid the use of the term. Instead, “NYDN” (Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous) was to be used and the afflicted were deemed undisciplined and lacking moral fibre. It wouldn’t be until 1941 with the publication of The traumatic neuroses of war by Abram Kardiner that it was recognised that any man could be affected by the atrocities of war and that traumatic symptoms were a normal response to an unbearable situation.

During the Second World War, psychiatrists continued to use hypnosis as treatment for trauma and veterans were offered improved practical and economic support. Psychological scars, however, were left unrecognised and untreated. From 1947, traumatic neuroses all but disappeared from official psychiatric language. 

The interest in trauma reignited in the seventies with the return of Vietnam war veterans who had such incapacitating symptoms that they were incapable of coping and functioning in civilian life. Many behaved violently towards their partners or became homeless and unemployable. But their symptoms continued to be labelled separately: alcoholism, substance misuse, depression, mood disorder or schizophrenia and treated accordingly, frequently without success. It was only when clinicians and mental health professionals working with Holocaust survivors, battered women, abused children and victims of accidents or rape collated their reports and discovered overwhelming similarities in their traumatised clients, that the range of behavioural, emotional and cognitive symptoms were combined into one psychological trauma diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1980, after several rejections, this term would finally be included in the bible of psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (third edition; DSM-III). 

For us today, it probably feels obvious that exposing men and women to abuse, war or anything that evokes extreme fear and helplessness would leave traumatic markers. And to a large degree science can now explain the mechanisms behind the process. That sense of ‘obviousness’ is how I have come to feel about the possibility of unresolved trauma or wrongdoing being passed onto the next generations, even though we don’t know how it happens. As I suggest in my TEDx talk, “our roots don’t just run backwards to our ancestors, but forwards to our children and those who come after. And if those roots are damaged or severed, what we hand on will also be impaired.

Many people have written to say my talk has resonated with their own experience of their forebears. But none of us can prove anything. And science will need time to develop the tools that can. Which probably means that the legacies of past familial, societal or historical traumas will not be taken into consideration when helping those afflicted by the often debilitating symptoms of depression, addiction, mental health… 

I think we need to be careful that this new emphasis on ‘following the science’ doesn’t pervade all areas of life. Even if we don’t yet understand the many complex ways in which transmission can occur, let’s give credence to the insights of people who have an innate or formally trained capacity to feel into a situation and ‘know‘ what’s right in the same way maternal instinct so often does. We have two sides to our brains for good reason. Currently the sceptical-until-proven logic of the left side largely prevails. But the non-verbal, intuitive right side has an equally valuable place, especially when it comes to imparting knowledge about our shared humanity. That’s an area where science often trails far behind.

I’d be interested to hear whether or not you think the experiences and insights I reveal in my TEDx talkFacing the past to liberate the future – need science to prove they are ‘real’?  

Related links:

The legacy of trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come

Understanding and healing collective trauma – Thomas Hübl

Dr Gabor Maté: Transgenerational trauma, stressed environment and child’s diagnosis

The past residing in the present and shaping the future

“It’s the memories,” 98-year old D-Day veteran, John Sleep, told the BBC interviewer, Sophie Raworth on Remembrance Sunday. Dressed in a blue suit decorated with medals and donning a burgundy beret and tie, his wheelchair was parked on Horse Guards Parade in front of the traditional ‘march past’ the Cenotaph. Asked how vividly he could remember it all, he said, “It was yesterday.” Silence followed as his face crumpled in its fight against tears. As for so many veterans, the title of “hero” bestowed on servicemen today feels misplaced. What he and his fellow soldiers did was not heroic, glorious or even brave necessarily. Those are qualities that belong to their friends who didn’t return. They are the real ‘heroes’ and their memories still roam and haunt the minds of the living. 

Memories; PTSD; horror, honour and pride get shaken into potent cocktails of commemoration at this time of year. Last weekend was almost overwhelming in the scale of significant events to be remembered. Don’t get me wrong; I love remembering the past because each time I ‘re-member’ an event, I learn a little more about its relevance to the present and the future. Time became a linear construct through the human need for rationality and order. Yet in reality, or in my experience at least, time refuses to simply line up chronologically. The past and future co-habit each moment of what we call the present.

November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall

This year’s calendar of remembrance started on 9th November, when Europe and beyond celebrated the 30thAnniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and remembered all those who died on the physical and symbolic front line of the Cold War. A bit like with the 9/11 collapse of the Twin Towers, it seems that everybody can place exactly where they were when it happened. I can recall my Sussex landlady’s unbridled joy as she danced in front of her television clapping her hands as the ‘Ossis’ flooded through the wall into the welcoming, cork-popping arms of West Germans. I remember clapping and grinning with her, careful to disguise my shameful ignorance of just how momentous a moment this was. The Cold War may have been the political backdrop to life back then, but I was still in the dark over the potency of German history… half my family’s history.

Next up was the annual Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall, an event that every year both moves me to tears and irritates me in equal measure. I have written about it before but in spite of some deeply kitsch musical contributions – James Blunt, the former army officer with a remarkably high voice and Leona Lewis, former X-Factor winner, who massacred ‘Like a Bridge over Troubled Water’ – I found this year’s festivities generally more sensitive, less triumphal (thank goodness) and more inclusive. They focused on the 75th anniversaries of lesser known, yet no less brutal, battles of 1944, such as Monte Cassino and Rome, and the collaboration and friendship of the British, Commonwealth and Allied armies who fought them. They also marked the 100th anniversary of GCHQ and the vital, albeit largely uncelebrated role of the secret services such as the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park completed by a workforce 76.35% of which were women… 

Ok, women’s forgotten / ignored / unrecognised place in war and history is a blog for another day. It’s the role of pride in all these activities of remembrance that I want to touch on here. Specifically the pride felt for and by family members. Pride can comfort in the face of death. Pride can give meaning to apparent pointlessness. Pride can assure the memory of a person is maintained for generations to come. Pride can overcome some of the horror of war. It can swell the heart and make thoughts soar. It can be a balm on the trauma of loss, which, if unprocessed, can be passed from generation to generation. 

So how is it for the relatives of German soldiers, I wonder? Millions died and yet pride is a tool that cannot be employed to soften the sharp corners of grief or maintain the memory. It’s difficult, I know. But for the sake of generations to come, in order to avoid the transgenerational transmission of unresolved emotions and to understand and most importantly quash the re-emergence of Germany’s Far Right, we need to address the problematic nature of remembering the men and women who were limbs in Hitler’s military body of destruction, but also brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, friends… and grandfathers of ordinary German families. 

John Sleep, our 98-year old veteran, is already putting my challenge into practice. Resting on the chequered blanket draped over his lap and gently held in place by misshapen hands in muddy, black woolen gloves, lies a simply-crafted wooden cross decorated with painted poppies and the word ‘Peace’. “It’s for the Monument of Tolerance,” he explained, “an organisation set up on the German border with all nationalities in it. The idea is to prevent wars,” he continues without the hesitation of his earlier answers. John also ‘does’ the German services. “I’ve got no problem with the Germans,” he declares. (Well that’s nice to hear.) “I think they did me a favour.” (Really??) “They got me a very good pension.” (Ah… ok – slightly disappointed face) But fair enough. He’d had “an argument” with a German tank and it had won.  

I like the ideas behind this Dutch Monument of Tolerance. Unveiled on 8 March 2001, it serves as a reminder of the more than 700 soldiers of 11 nationalities who lost their lives in the Leudal area between 1940 and 1945. I am pleased that at least here German families have an opportunity to bestow a tiny fraction of the recognition other nations can pour over their military family members. So, next Sunday 17th November, on the occasion of Germany’s humble Volkstrauertag – ‘people’s day of mourning’ – I would like to invite you to join me for a tiny minute in thought. A tiny moment in which we try and extend the lines of our famous and treasured poem of Remembrance to include some of Germany’s Wehrmacht soldiers and their families. 

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

Käthe Kolwitz: Mother with her dead son, Neue Wache, Berlin